Pages of a discarded newspaper on a park bench in Tompkins Square Park ruffle in the oxygen-rich spring breeze. The paper lies beneath old trees just today remembering to flower along the shaded paths. The East Village neighborhood of New York City is full of small parks like this one, with damp spring air and quiet paths. No children play in this section of the park today; no police officers patrol its paths.
An old man in a gray hat and loose black coat sits on the bench with the newspaper beside him. Like the other men who dot the park in the early morning hours, he is silent. He draws in a notebook, works a short pencil carefully with thick, bent fingers. Buds emerge on the page from sketched branches of an old, crooked fruit tree.
The man stops drawing to rub his pencil sideways back and forth on the newspaper over the headline that reads, “30 Years Later, Killer Anthony Morales Released to a Changed World.” Below the headline is a photo. It’s his photo. Beside it is a second photo of Anthony as a middle-aged, burly man with a tight, angry face escorted from criminal court by a police officer. That photo was taken after Anthony’s murder conviction three decades ago.
Anthony spits on the pencil. He pulls a folded scrap of sandpaper out of his pocket and sands the pencil wood to expose the graphite tip. He sands it the way you do when you don’t have a blade on you sharp enough to cut wood. Now, among the many things he doesn’t have, is a blade. He moves his hands slowly because he is plagued by rheumatoid arthritis. He coughs thickly, short of breath from chronic asthma. He pushes away the newspaper scratched with pencil markings to the other end of the bench. That’s history and he’s here now. He’s here as a free man just like any other man sitting in the park. He’s here with the old flowering trees and learning to live again. He’ll start with sketching.
It’s the Saturday of Easter weekend and a bustling farmers’ market is getting set up on the sidewalks of Avenue A, at the west side of the park. Trucks line the street. Normally, peddlers come to this part of the city on Sunday, but on Easter weekend they come on Saturday. Presumably the change is so that people can go to church with their families back home on Sunday, to celebrate the resurrection of Christ and the promise of eternal life, if they want.
Today the peddlers and farmers set up tables on the sidewalk. They unload their rented trucks and stack up locally produced honeys, red and purple jams, and amber maple syrup jars that shine like jewels in the early morning sunlight. One of the tables is loaded with shining apples—even though April is a time when apples couldn’t possibly have come from a farm anywhere in New York State. Aromas of all kinds of cheeses, herbs and flowers cover the usual stench of urine around the park with an orchestra of spring scents.
Two blocks away in a third-floor apartment, a young woman rushes to get dressed. It’s in a six-story, brick building that was once a tenement but now it costs a small fortune for a six-month lease on a two-room unit. The woman paints on brown eyeliner, flips her hair and sprays perfume under her blouse. “What’s the plan today, Peter?” she calls.
In the next room, Peter fits a handgun neatly into a holster on his belt under his freshly cleaned jacket. He regards his reflection critically in a wall mirror. In his forties, Peter is careful about his appearance. Even if what he does every day is ugly, he doesn’t have to be. He doesn’t want to be. “Breakfast, Lina. I’m taking you out for breakfast,” he answers.
“To that Polish place?” Lina calls out.
“Ukrainian. It’s Ukrainian,” he replies, quite certain she isn’t listening.
“Working on Saturday?” She appears in front of him, happy, dressed and ready to go.
Peter thinks she looks pretty. She’s young and round in all the right ways for her age. She smells of freesia. It’s something that doesn’t grow anywhere around here but still says “spring” to him.
“Got a job to take care of, Lina, that’s how it is,” Peter says.
“I don’t even want to know,” she says.
Peter looks her over and asks, “Don’t you have a dress?”
“Not here, not with me, I don’t. You told me to bring one?” She slips on brown-heeled sandals.
They walk down the gray slate steps of the building’s white, marble-walled stairway. Lina goes first so she won’t rush him. Even if she still says whatever comes to her mind freely, she’s learned to be cautious with Peter physically. She carefully protects his space. Peter stops at the hall window to look at the pigeons that roost between the hallway window and the building next door. It’s a dark alley space about six feet wide and six stories tall. The birds think it’s a rock canyon. Peter thinks it looks like a crypt.
The pigeons’ rhythmic cooing echoes along the marble walls and up the stairwell, an undulating pearl gray feather of a noise all around Peter. Beneath one of the windows, a nearly full-grown fledgling pigeon sits silently on the narrow brick ledge. It blinks at Peter. With a whistling frantic blur of wings, a flock of pigeons flies up past the fledgling toward the light above the alley. The fledgling remains motionless even after they pass.
“The other one’s gone,” Peter says and he follows Lina down the stairs and out the front door.
“Other one what?” she asks.
“Baby pigeon; there were two yesterday,” he says.
Lina stops to look at the sun glaring painfully off the windows of parked cars along the street and she steps outside. “So bright,” she says, squinting.
“Probably died, no one to look after it,” Peter says, following her, and he slips on his reflective sunglasses.
“Or flew off. They were getting big. It probably flew, don’t you think?” she takes his arm gently.
“Or died, something like that. Like people. They grow up, comes time to go and some fly, some fall. Some die,” he answers.
Lina gives him a disapproving grimace.
In a parking lot next to their building, the glossy green tips of spring flowers push up through dead leaves just where the pavement ends by a ten-foot-high wire mesh fence. Evenly pointed spears emerge in clusters every two feet along the parking lot. It’s crowded with police cars and dotted with litter.
“Must have been a garden there before the police station got it,” Peter says.
“It wasn’t always a parking lot. There…” he says and points out the sleek green tips to her.
Lina looks carefully and says, “They’re weeds.”
“Narcissus or daffodils,” he notes.
They walk along First Avenue and Peter scours the dirt beside the sidewalk looking for more signs of life, signs of rebirth. He kicks at the ground gently on the sidewalk edge in front of a deli. A young man hosing down the deli sidewalk with bleach stops and watches him.
Lina steps into the deli and picks up the Saturday paper. She glances at the headline as she pays and reads, “30 Years Later, Killer Anthony Morales Released to a Changed World.” Lina folds the paper under her arm before Peter looks her way.
The couple walk together slowly in the sunshine down the block and Lina’s heels click lightly on the sidewalk. The air is full of the rich aroma of shops baking pastries, burning sugar, yeast, nuts and brewing coffee. The scents mix with the usual pungent layer of smells from various bodily fluids that cover the East Village sidewalks any Saturday morning.
Everyone with a shop has put out buckets of newly cut flowers for sale today—brilliant yellow, white and pink blooms are everywhere.
“God, it’s so bright, beautiful. Look at those yellow ones,” Lina says, “What are they, anyway?”
“Daffodils,” Peter says.
“Daff-a-down dilly,” she says and hums the nursery tune lightly.
“They’re not from around here. It’ll be a week or two before they bloom here from the old gardens,” Peter says.
“What’s with you today, you and the old gardens? No one has gardens here anymore. Is something going on? Are you trying to be poetic?” she asks him, and she laughs.
Peter looks at the sun behind the trees just starting to bud over where Lina stands smiling at him. The sun is dappling in her soft hair. Not because of that, but just because he can’t help himself, he forgives her. She’s young. She probably has an Easter dress back at her own apartment, or at her mother’s house, or something that would pass for an Easter dress. She probably would care about plants if they’d been together longer and she came to understand him. Then he would show her the hidden East Village and Lower East Side gardens, and maybe the one at La Plaza Cultural down the street. Tomorrow, even, if he didn’t have to work.
The air is still crisp except where it’s sunny. As they walk, the warmth of the sunlight does something to Peter. Or maybe it’s the fragments of old gardens emerging from beneath the pavement in the odd corners he and Lina pass. The sun, the flowers, a memory from somewhere else, something he just can’t help remembering from a different time in his life pushes through along with nature, pushes up into his thoughts and right through to the moment.
“I used to be poetic,” Peter says, reluctantly.
Lina snorts, “You?”
“A long time ago. Used to take care of a garden out back for my mother—perennials, herbs. Used to draw. We probably never talked about it. The world changed. My world changed. Family lived on the Lower East Side then.”
“I wondered why you’d want to stay down here. When was that, anyway?”
“Thirty years ago. It’s history. Like I said, was a long time ago.”
“Well, I guess it was,” Lina replies. “How old are you, fifty? And all you ever talk about is work, taking care of business. I don’t ask you about it, I don’t care.”
“Forty-seven. I’m forty-seven.”
“You’re old, Peter, and you know what? You’re the least poetic man I’ve ever known,” she laughs.
He pulls Lina to the side of the street where new shoots push up through the ground along a long, low fence surrounding a group of new condos.
“Hey! Sun must be getting to you. You alright?” she asks him.
“See those, the red ones? Just uncurling like a tiny baby’s fist?”
Lina looks carefully.
“Those are peonies,” he says.
She shrugs, unimpressed. “What do they look like later? The flowers, I mean.”
“Big and fluffy like a fat, beautiful woman’s dress.”
“You think I’m fat? Is that what you’re saying?” Lina asks, hurt.
“No. But a dress is nice sometimes. And that…” he nods toward a crooked, trailing brown twig with green buds emerging along it like minute jade pyramids. “Roses. You’ll see if you come by here again in June.”
“Looks like old sticks,” she answers, “but I’ll come. You invite me and I’ll come.”
They turn on to Avenue A by Tompkins Square Park. Peter can see behind the busy farmers’ market all the way across the sleeping park because the trees are still mostly bare. A pink and white mist of the earliest flowers dot the branches in the sunlight like white lace covering old women at mass. A few men sit on the park benches quietly and others lean motionless on the tree trunks. These men never seem to leave the park; these men like shadows of the trees in their loose, black coats and gray hats.
Peter and Lina take a booth near the full-length windows inside the diner overlooking the park. It’s Peter’s favorite diner, Odessa. Lina reads the paper with her back to the windows during their breakfast. She looks for something to interest him. He finishes his coffee and stares at the park.
“What does that mean, anyway, ‘Odessa’?” Lina asks absently.
“It’s a city,” Peter says. “Pushkin lived there.”
“Pushkin, the poet,” he says.
“Never heard of him. First it’s gardens and now poets. What’s next? Hey, this is something. Right up your alley. Listen to this,” Lina reads. “This guy was in prison for years, thirty years. Locked up for thirty years—can you imagine? He got caught. For murder. They arrested him for…oh, no! This is really terrible. Listen to this, Peter. He murdered a man right inside his home, here on the Lower East Side. Was about to kill the wife when the police came in and the son, the son…”
Peter tears the newspaper away from her. He smoothes it out on the table and pushes the dishes backwards out of his way. He trembles as he reads.
“Hey, that’s rude.”
I walk home alone, it’s late. Flashing red and blue lights reflect along our block. I see the police car. I hear the wailing ambulance sirens. I walk up the stairs, our stairs. I touch fresh blood on the doorway. I’m terrified. I walk into the kitchen. Mom is down on the floor. I can’t speak. She’s bleeding. She’s crying. She sees me and screams at the police in Ukrainian. She tells them to take me away from there but they don’t understand her. A man from the ambulance bends over her asking her questions in English. They move a stretcher behind her. I go to it. The man who lies there is someone I know. He’s my father. He’s covered on the stretcher, completely covered, but I know it’s him. A police officer pushes me back and leads a big man past me. The man is hard, angry—he stares at me as he passes. He has blood on his shirt. I remember him, his face, his hard thick hands. I remember him precisely. That’s when it all started. Thirty years ago my family life, my beautiful family life ended and something different began then. My work began. My ugly work. It’s him, that tight, angry face. Tried, imprisoned, released. Anthony Morales.
“Check,” Peter calls urgently to a waiter across the room. He hands a twenty dollar bill to Lina. “Take care of this,” he says to her. As he looks at her, Peter realizes for the first time that she looks like his mother did when she was very young. That face.
“What’s wrong with you?” Lina whispers urgently.
“Have to go,” Peter says and he rushes out of the diner.
“No you don’t, not this time. This is for Easter!” Lina raises her voice in a steady crescendo, “Goddamn it, Peter, come back here! Will I see you tomorrow?” she calls after him.
Peter reflexively checks his belt for his gun. He rushes along Avenue A lined with farmers’ rented trucks, with carts, boxes. The blinding white tents reflect the sun over produce-laden tables. Peter is hit violently with an unbearable headache. Now the smells nauseate him. He crosses over to the sidewalk crowded with chatty young couples and sleepy students, all new to the neighborhood. They look at the produce, pick up pots of flowers. A drunken man, still up from the night before, leans on a tree and watches the busy peddlers arrange their goods on the tables. They keep the tables full as the shoppers take away bags of local goods. A young man pisses on the tree behind Peter.
“Want a taste of honey?” a farm boy calls out to Peter. The boy smiles and reaches toward Peter. The boy leans over a table piled high with honey jars and boxes of honeycomb and holds a sample out to Peter. “It’s from New York,” the boy says. “Local wildflower honey.” The boy leans forward close to Peter and says under his breath, “Don’t tell anyone, though. Can’t have a bee farm in New York. Some law on the books from way back. History, you know,” he says and he laughs.
“How old are you?” Peter asks and his voice breaks.
“Seventeen, man,” the boy answers. “Why?”
Peter’s heart pounds and the pain in his head hammers him. He was just seventeen when it happened, when everything changed. Peter pushes past the boy, jostling the flimsy table. People cry out but they don’t stop him. The table tilts toward the sidewalk and honey jars slide off and crash on the pavement, splitting open. The boy rushes forward to rescue what he can of his precious things. Boxes of honeycomb tumble into the spilled honey around him.
Peter breaks into a run through the crowded market. He heads blindly into the park, the quiet park. He races along the sleepy paths followed by the drumming of his pounding feet until he is breathless. He’s sweating. None of the local men standing around like shadows on the trees seem to notice him. No one follows him, and he feels like a ghost racing through his past—the missing fledgling pigeon, the emerging flower tips, the news about Anthony Morales, Lina’s face and his mom’s face, the boy in the market, his own youth—all of it gone, missing but somehow reemerging and coming back to him all at once. Peter stops behind a park bench, leans on a tree, wheezing painfully. He struggles to pull his thoughts together. He pulls out a white handkerchief, wipes his sweaty face with it and tries to formulate a plan.
Into the garden, into the garden and no one is following. For her, for them. Crucifixion, rebirth. Into the park, into the park and no one is watching. Alone with the old men. Find him. Find Anthony Morales in a remote area. In the garden. Finish it off. For Mom, for Lina. Get my life back. Kill, die, be reborn, and live again.
The tree Peter leans on is just starting to bud and the first pink-white flowers push through the tough red bark tips of the branches. Beneath the tree, a ragged man and his large dog are still asleep, curled up around one another. Peter watches the sleeping man, the sleeping dog. Peter listens to the silence of the park. The pain in his head is so intense that he sees flashing lights. He begins to cry. He hasn’t cried in years and feels like his chest is on fire. He holds the handkerchief to his eyes and breathes deeply into it.
Peter notices an old man in a gray hat and black coat who sits on the bench right beside the tree. The old man’s back is to Peter. The man works on a pencil drawing in his notebook with arthritic hands and full concentration. He shades buds on crooked fruit tree branches. He draws the rebirth of spring. The penciled tree branch unfolds in the notebook in front of him delicately, inexorably, pushing through the paper and coming to life.
Peter listens to the rhythmic scratching of the pencil and it draws him back, grounds him in the present. He stops crying. He watches. He stares at the intricate details of the flowers emerging on the notebook page. He looks up at the flowering tree above them, down at the sketch taking on its own life. It all merges into one idea of rebirth. He is fascinated by the drawing.
“Beautiful,” Peter says, and the word escapes him in a whisper.
Peter’s handkerchief falls to the ground.
Old Anthony Morales’s pencil drops from his arthritic fingers and he clutches his hat awkwardly, presses it to his chest. His face contorts, wrinkling in on itself like the bark of the old fruit trees. Anthony slumps forward and then is perfectly still.
The dog sleeping under the tree curled up with his owner suddenly wakes. It barks in a frenzy, circling the tree madly as if possessed. Peter jumps away, frightened. The dog keeps barking. The ragged man wakes up and reaches out to catch hold of his dog. He puts his hand on the dog’s collar. The dog stops barking and whines pitifully. The dog and the man stare at Anthony slumped forward on the bench. They look over at Peter.
“Do something! Can’t you do something?” The man pleads. Whimpering, the big dog lies back down next to him.
Peter inches around the park bench. He kneels and picks up the fallen pencil. He looks up and identifies the old man slumped forward on the bench. It is him. Old Anthony Morales is immobile, dead already. He is peacefully folded over the beautiful flowers he’s drawn in the notebook that lies open in his lap. Beside Anthony and Peter is the pencil-scratched newspaper with the story of the release. It ruffles in the oxygen-rich breeze like newly emerging spring leaves.
Excerpt from “Death and the Dream” short stories by J.J.Brown